Orange County jail escape: Was fight that injured deputy a ploy to delay noticing inmates on the loose?

At least 250 law enforcement officials were searching across Orange County and Southern California Monday for three escaped inmates who broke out of jail Friday.

By Monday, police had served 30 search warrants for homes and cellphones.

Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong were present during a 5 a.m. count at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana on Friday, where all were held on violent criminal charges.

“There’s no information to indicate they’ve left Southern California,” Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said. “It’s possible the three are being harbored by someone in the community, but no direct indication of that.”

Hallock said the second and final scheduled physical inmate count, which usually happens around 8 p.m., was delayed Friday night because of a possibly staged fight between inmates, which also injured a deputy.

“(The fight) may have been a ploy to distract staff to further delay the 8 p.m. physical body count,” Hallock said.

The count was delayed about an hour.

County officials – including the Sheriff’s Department, Probation and District Attorney’s office – and authorities from the FBI, U.S. Marshals, ATF, state parole and U.S. Postal Inspectors, have been working to find the men.

Early Monday afternoon, the District Attorney filed a felony complaint against the three for escape “from pending felony charges.”

Questions still remain about how the men were able to break out, as officials separated the incident into two investigations: the first finding the fugitives. The second, an investigation into how the jail’s security was breached and who may have helped.

“Once we get the inmates back into custody, we’ll focus on how they were able to get out,” Hallock said.

Duong – who does not speak English – and Tieu are both members of violent Vietnamese gangs, sheriff’s Lt. Dave Sawyer said.

Authorities suspect the men are being harbored, although it’s unknown if they were still together Monday.

“There is a strong possibility that (Tieu) is connected with those fellow gang members in the Vietnamese community,” Hallock said.

Deputy Phuong Nguyen, a Vietnamese-speaking deputy, made a plea during the 10 a.m. press conference addressing the Vietnamese community, or areas densely populated by that demographic.

Tieu, a 20-year-old member of the Tiny Rascal Gang or TRG, was being held in a 68-man jail unit with Duong, 43, and Nayeri, 38, on charges of murder.

Investigators suspect Tieu, along with several other Tiny Rascal Gang members, shot and killed Scottie Bui, 19, an alleged member of the Power of Vietnam or POV gang around 2:20 a.m. March 20, 2011.

Tieu was 16 at the time of the shooting.

Ten Tiny Rascal Gang members were arrested in April 2011 during a raid where Garden Grove police served search warrants connected to Bui’s death. Officers, in addition to making the arrest, found drugs, guns and $70,000 in cash.

Tieu’s fellow gang member, Tien Phuoc Phung, was convicted of Bui’s murder, although the conviction was overturned in July 2014.

Lynda Bui, 29, Scottie Bui’s older sister, said Monday morning at their family home that the family had not been told by officials about Tieu’s escape.

This left them feeling surprised and uneasy.

“It’s kind of scary because you don’t know what he’s going to do, you know?” she said.

The events, which happened about five years ago, still linger for them.

“It’s been a long time … I just feel sad about all of this.”

Duong is also considered a violent Vietnamese gang member, although it was unknown Monday whether he and Tieu knew each other before being incarcerated.

On Nov. 18, Duong is accused of shooting a 52-year-old man, identified in court documents as Michael L., in the chest around 1:35 p.m. in the 5600 block of West Highland Street in Santa Ana.

Duong, 43, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and was ineligible for bail because of an immigration hold.

He was previously released from lockup on an early-release program for two narcotics charges out of Garden Grove, Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said.

Duong has also been charged previously with crimes including burglary, evading, firearm possession, domestic violence, criminal threats, attempted robbery and carjacking, according to Santa Ana police records.

He has no permanent address in Santa Ana, but was known to stay in various houses within the city when he was not housed at Orange County jail, Bertagna said.

Nayeri, 37, while not affiliated with local Vietnamese gangs, also has a violent past.

He is one of four people accused of kidnapping and torturing a Santa Ana marijuana dispensary owner.

Prosecutors allege they burned the dispensary owner with a blowtorch and cut off his penis before dumping him and his girlfriend on the side of a desert road.

The couple survived and Nayeri, who previously fled to Iran before being captured in Prague and flown back to Orange County, has been held without bail in the Orange County Jail since September 2014.

It was still unclear how the three escapees fled once they hit the ground outside the jail sometime Friday morning. But sheriff’s spokesman Hallock said they were gone for 16 to 18 hours before deputies noticed.

Investigators established over the weekend that the trio cut through half-inch steel bars in the jail unit before forcing their way into a plumbing tunnel, Hallock said.

They made their way onto the jailhouse roof before lowering themselves four stories to the ground using improvised rope made of bed sheets.

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Officials are relying heavily on information and tips from the community.

Anyone who may have seen any of the three men or have information about where they could be should call 911.

“These are very dangerous inmates,” Hallock said. “It’s important that the public realizes that.”

The U.S. Marshals offered a $30,000 reward leading to their capture, and the FBI added an extra $20,000.

“We are receiving tips, but not of the quality we would like,” Hallock said.

People with information about the suspects are requested to call the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at 714-628-7085.

Staff writer Scott Schwebke contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or aduranty@ocregister.com

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